New eyeglasses for the homeless

La clinique mobile Regard collectif souhaite offrir gratuitement des examens de la vue à plus de 350 sans-abris par an.

La clinique mobile Regard collectif souhaite offrir gratuitement des examens de la vue à plus de 350 sans-abris par an.

Credit: Amélie Philibert

In 5 seconds

A mobile clinic run by UdeM’s School of Optometry offers free eye and vision care to homeless people at the Maison du Père shelter.

Martin, age 41, has been sleeping at the Maison du Père homeless shelter after living in the streets for several weeks following a major depression that left him without a job, a house or a family. When he heard he could get a free consultation with an optometrist, he jumped at the chance. “I haven’t had my eyes checked for at least 10 years,” said the university graduate, sporting a new pair of glasses provided at no cost by Université de Montréal’s School of Optometry via its Regard Collectif mobile eye-care clinic.

Launched by UdeM professor Benoit Tousignant, this community clinic began offering free consultations to the men staying at the Maison du Père in August. Twice a month, a team composed of a professional optometrist and three interns makes it way to this downtown shelter to set up a temporary clinic that’s fully outfitted to perform eye exams. As the optometrist who supervises Regard Collectif’s operations explained, “We’ve made sure we have a mobile version of all the equipment needed to ensure the same high standard of quality offered by [UdeM’s] Clinique universitaire de la vision.”

On the day of our visit, three graduates of the PhD program in optometry – Andréanne Louwet, Danielle Richard and Pier-Alexandre Vallée – were busy in the van, surrounded by the various tools of their trade. “Doing work in the community gives us valuable experience,” explained Vallée. “And we have the impression that our interventions are appreciated.” He considers that this type of internship is a necessary part of training for optometrists who want to practise in urban centres.

Using a room that usually serves as a reading room, the clinic can be set up in under an hour and is ready to receive its first patients by 9:30 a.m.

Cataracts detected

The examinations help detect changes in patients’ vision, and those who need glasses are invited to come back the next time the clinic visits to pick up their frames. In most cases, the cost is covered under the patient’s Quebec social-assistance plan.

But sometimes the exam also reveals more serious problems. That was the case for 57-year-old Frédéric. “When I came in last time, they told me I had cataracts,” he said. He was referred to an ophthalmology unit following his visit and is now awaiting an operation. “I could have lost my sight completely if I hadn’t had an exam in time.”

The Regard Collectif clinic also diagnoses vision problems such as diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and macular degeneration.

According to the Maison du Père’s general manager, François Boissy, patients are very happy to have access to these services and he himself is delighted with this first partnership with Université de Montréal. “For them, getting their visual acuity back means a better chance of returning to a normal life,” he pointed out.

Martin couldn’t agree more: “If I want to find a job or go back to school, I have to be able to read,” he said. “Good vision is absolutely essential to the process of social reintegration.”

Other shelters in view

The clinic plans to expand its services to other organizations catering to the homeless, such as Mission Bon Accueil. The goal is to offer between 30 and 40 clinics a year, for a total of 350 to 400 patient examinations. “The needs are enormous,” said Tousignant. “There are about 12,000 homeless people in Montreal and most of them do not have ready access to eye and vision care.” 

In addition to providing a fertile training ground for graduates of the School of Optometry, community settings also offer a conducive environment for research projects. For example, they open up the possibility for studies aimed at providing a clearer picture of eye health among the homeless population or at assessing the effect of mobile clinics on the social reintegration of the homeless.

The mobile clinic is funded by the School of Optometry and the eyeglass-lenses company Essilor. Exeko, Hydro-Québec and Centennial Optical are also partners in the project.